Straight to the Point: The Mechanism of Acupuncture
Brooke Hardy, L. Ac.
The practice of acupuncture dates back thousands of years. The first text that documents the use of acupuncture dates back to 100 BCE. While it is an ancient practice that stems from a primitive understanding of the body, it has proven itself to be a valuable tool in alternative medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the body is mapped out by meridians that run over the entire body and influence different “Zang” or “organs” in the body. Organs in Chinese medical theory are not exactly like the organs of human anatomy. These organs all work together and circulate “qi”. TCM describes qi as the life force or life energy in the body. The correct flow of qi regulates the health of an individual. This is where acupuncture comes in. By inserting needles into points on these meridians practitioners are able to manipulate the flow of qi in the body. Now, I know that this all sounds a little out there to some of you so let me explain it from more of a western medicine perspective.
Let’s discuss how acupuncture affects the pain. The gate control theory first proposed by Melzack and Wall suggests that pain is transmitted via small nerve fibers in the skin to the brain. Also present are larger fibers that send signals to inhibit the smaller fibers “gating” or preventing a pain signal. When you hit your elbow the small fibers overwhelm the large and a pain signal is sent. You rub your elbow and your pain feels better. The theory is that by stimulating these inhibitory large fibers you reduce the pain reaction by the small fibers. So where does acupuncture come in? It is believed that by placing needles in points that the large fibers are stimulated inhibiting pain response in patients. This theory also ties in with the research behind connective tissues. Over 80% of the acupuncture points on the body are located over planes of connective tissue lying between muscles. When these tissues are manipulated (either by stretching or needling) they communicate with nearby connective tissues and relax them. Needling into points cause connective tissues to wrap around the needle and effectively stretch them in a healthy way to relieve pain. Acupuncture works both at the muscular and neural level to affect pain in patients. It reduces both the intensity and perception of pain in the body.
So how can acupuncture help with other symptoms? These “micro-traumas” in the connective tissues caused by acupuncture stimulate the body to heal itself by activating the nervous, immune, and endocrine system. Needling increases blood flow which benefits the healing of both chronic and acute injuries. When the body is needled a signal sent through the nervous system to the brain releases endorphins, norepinephrine, and enkephalin which relieve pain, stress, and anxiety. Recent research has found that oxytocin is released as a result of acupuncture. This affects the sympathetic (Fight or Flight) and parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) nervous systems. The effect on these systems reduces stress. The parasympathetic nervous system function has been tied to the cause of some autoimmune diseases including lupus, RA, inflammatory bowel disease, and arthritis. Other modalities used in Chinese medicine work on similar principles with the exception of Chinese herbs. To sum it up we view the body as a “river” of energy. When the river gets blocked it causes energy to back up and cause symptoms in the body. By removing these blocks with acupuncture manipulation practitioners are able to benefit the patient and relieve symptoms. The possibilities are endless when it comes to Chinese medicine. So get to the point and schedule an appointment today!